When it comes to film scoring, size definitely does matter. The trend in big-budget Hollywood films has been toward a bigger and bigger sound—enormous string and brass sections and 20-person percussion ensembles, all backed by massive beds of synths and samples. But often, especially with indie projects, what’s required is a much smaller, more intimate sound. Even a modestly sized orchestra might be far too large for a quiet drama about a family, a couple or a child.
It’s important for a film composer to know how to match what’s happening onscreen not just musically, but also in terms of size, feel and scope. Scoring The Avengers with just acoustic guitar and flute would clearly be wrong, just as using the orchestra from Pirates of the Carribean to score Juno would have also been a mistake. In this set of posts I’ll explore various ways to get your cues to sound really huge or really tiny. I’ll start this week with making things small.
One of the easiest ways to make something seem small is to juxtapose it with something huge. I’ll discuss bigness in the next installment, but for now being armed with this knowledge may help you build contrasting sections in your piece. Place a solo instrument or a small ensemble side-by-side with a full tutti section to maximize the impact of both. Contrast a delicate acoustic guitar solo with a maxed-out, amps-at-11 heavy metal jam to give both more impact.
If the characteristics of big are more, louder, and heavier, it would seem obvious that less, softer, and lighter are good ways to keep things small. Limiting yourself is one easy way to keep a composition compact. Let’s look at some of the ways to do this:
Restricting the size of your ensemble is a great way to shrink a piece. Instead of an entire orchestra, use a chamber ensemble or a string quartet. One important thing to remember is that the strings make up the bulk of an orchestra and they contribute more than any other element to the feeling of size one gets from hearing an full orchestral recording. When smallness is required in the midst of a larger piece, limit yourself to just the first chairs or a small divisi group from each string section. This will create a lightness that you can’t get from a full orchestra. Much like reverb, which gives our brains subtle cues about the location of a sound, small string sections sound smaller than large ones, even to untrained ears.
If you need something to be really small, try using just a solo instrument. Solo piano or guitar can be quite versatile because they can play both melody and accompaniment and yet still sound like one instrument playing alone. For an even tinier effect, using something like flute or violin that can only play a melody will have a very compact, lonely sound. This can be especially striking when surrounded by more fully-orchestrated sections that really cause the solo to stand out.
Another element to consider is doubling. While it may be useful in some contexts it will by its nature increase the number of players and undermine your attempts to make your piece seem compact. A lone oboe playing the melody will naturally give a smaller impression than the same melody doubled on flute.
Limiting the vertical range of a composition is another way to shrink its size. Using only one or two octaves for both the melody and accompaniment can make a piece seem compact and contained. Conversely, music that spans all the octaves of the keyboard will sound immense. Be especially wary of doubling the melody or the bassline at the octave. Not only are you expanding the number of players, but you’re simultaneously increasing the vertical range of the piece. Needless to say doublings can be beautiful effects, but if your primary goal is to create something small and intimate you may be working at cross-purposes.
Keep in mind that that in general, the bigger things are the heavier they are. This generally means more bass. Audition a few drum samples in Stormdrum or Evolve Mutations if you have any doubt. Their massive-sounding drums are absolutely loaded with bass frequencies. Small things, on the other hand, are generally lightweight and wouldn’t generate much in the way of bass frequencies. Steer clear of the bottom two or three octaves of the keyboard, and consider rolling off any frequencies below around 150 Hz just to make sure no stray rumbles are sneaking through. Small things don’t necessarily have to reside at the very top of an instrument’s range, but eliminating as much bass as possible will help a cue to sound truly tiny.
Another factor to consider is volume. Small things are often quieter than big things, and this effect is easy to accomplish musically. Solo instruments and small ensembles are naturally quieter that full orchestral tuttis, so some of the volume issues will be accomplished for you by shrinking the number of players. In fact, this effect was common during the Classical era. Mozart, Haydn and their comrades often created crescendos and diminuendos by expanding and contracting the number of players rather than notating dynamics. Of course you can also enhance this effect using quieter dynamic levels or reducing the volume during mixing.
Be sure to consider the location of your recording, whether it’s real or artificial. Going back to the Stormdrum example, the other notable property of many of those drum samples is the enormous amount of reverb. Stadiums, cathedrals and airplane hangers have a tendency to make sounds seem bigger since the setting is so obviously vast. Steer clear of gigantic spaces to make your piece sound more compact and intimate. Be sure to use this guideline with a grain of salt though. A piccolo alone in a giant concert hall has a lonely, forlorn quality that a close-miked piccolo doesn’t, and this may be just the effect your piece needs.
Very small ambiences (or no reverb at all) can make a soundsource feel so close that it’s literally in your face. Ambiences like this have a naked, intimate quality, as though the subject is sharing its innermost secrets with you. Again, this won’t necessarily make your cue sound “small,” but it may add an upfront, personal quality that the moment needs.
The long and the short of it is that your choice of reverb and ambience may not be as cut and dried as some of the other size-related issues, but it will most certainly have an impact. Context will likely be the deciding factor. Pay close attention to where you situate your sounds and make sure that the location supports the mood of what’s happening onscreen and in the music.
Think about the subject you’re trying to represent musically. What traits does it have? If you’re writing the theme for a field mouse, describe it’s characteristics. Mice are lightweight and somewhat fragile. They make high-pitched squeaking sounds. Their movements are quick and darting, and they’re difficult to catch.
You can exploit this in your music in various ways. In the case of the field mouse, you might use a violin playing spiccato high in its range to imitate a mouse’s squeaks. Its quick movements could be represented by a fast melody containing leaps and frequent changes in direction. Another great example is using a flute to imitate a bird, as Prokofiev did so expertly in Peter and the Wolf.
As with all film scoring, the most important consideration is that the music match what’s happening onscreen. All of these ideas are meant merely as guidelines. Pick and choose, and use the ones that best suit the cue you’re working on. Analyze the subject matter and choose the techniques that fit the best. Toss the others out. Write great music that fits the film like a glove and you’ll be working for many years to come.
[Photo by Brian J. Bruemmer]